Sugarland is at home in pop country

Duo brings crossover sound to Merriweather this weekend

May 14, 2010|By Sam Sessa, The Baltimore Sun

When Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles scans pop radio these days, she likes the newfound variety she hears.

Recently, more traditional acts such as Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum have popped up amidst the sea of dance starlets such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Britney Spears. Such a mix was hard to come by a few years ago, she said, when bubble gum pop had a stranglehold on the charts. It gives Nettles hope for the future of pop — and country — music.

"When I see little Taylor Swift, I say, 'Go go go,'" she said. "Darwin had it right. It's much like genetic mutation. If you continue in this incestuous, homogenous genetic pool you're going to get some freaks. You've got to get out there and diversify the gene pool."

As the front woman of one of country music's bigger bands, Nettles is doing her part to shake up the pop landscape. Sugarland's sound has been adopted by music lovers of all stripes, she said.

When Nettles scopes the audience at Sugarland's shows, she sees teenagers, parents and grandparents from all walks of life enjoying the music. Sunday, when the band comes to Merriweather Post Pavilion, Nettles expects to see more of the same diversity at the Columbia amphitheater.

"I don't know how many times at meet and greets we get people who come up and say, 'I don't like country music, but I like what you do.' We say, 'You are who we write records for, my friend. Come on over.'"

Nettles and Sugarland's other member, singer/guitarist Kristian Bush, are readying their fourth studio album, "The Incredible Machine," for a mid-summer release. They have been teasing crowds with a few songs from the album, which sees Sugarland reaching out from its country roots and embracing a wider sound, Nettles said. The band's last album, "Love on the Inside," dealt with the many sides of love, but thematically, "The Incredible Machine" will be more freeform, she said.

"We push and stretch but we don't force," she said. "It's not like Sugarland is making a thrash metal record. Nobody is going to be shocked, but I hope people are pleasantly surprised."

Nettles was a solo artist before forming Sugarland with Bush and Kristen Hall in 2003 (Hall left the group in 2006). While Nettles sings lead most of the time with Sugarland, but there are songs where Bush steps out in front, and plenty of duets. Nettles loves what she calls the "communal experience" of singing harmonies with someone else.

"I love the practice of it, I love the metaphor and I love what I feel is a spiritual part of it — a metaphysical portion," she said. "Two voices, two notes come together and have a certain resonance. They vibrate in a certain way. It's fascinating, even on a scientific level, to think about we would be drawn to that as humans.

Sugarland's albums typically have a blend of songs penned by Nettles and Bush, as well as outside songwriters. "Stay," a stripped-down acoustic song about an affair from the perspective of the other woman that Nettles wrote on her couch, went on to win best country song at the Grammys, song of the year at the Country Music Awards and the Country Music Association Awards — the ultimate trifecta for a country songwriter.

"Stay" was the first Sugarland song written solely by Nettles, appearing on the band's 2006 album, "Enjoy the Ride." Now, when Nettles sits down to write a song, she still feels the long shadow cast by "Stay."

"Every time I write a song, I feel like, 'Oh my gosh, that's it, I'm never going to write a good one again,'" she said. "But you always want to continue to better yourself and write a song that, in my case, will have as much connection as 'Stay' has had. I believe it's totally possible."

If you go Sugarland performs Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $36-$76. Call 877-435-9849 or go to

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